AI Images, Now and Then

If you are connected to the internet at all in 2023, you have surely seen a “new” thing: a profusion of images generated by so-called artificial intelligence (AI) prompted only by text descriptions and informed by the millions of images on the internet. For example, if you type “Reformer John Calvin as an astronaut” into one of the AI image generators, you might get a result like this:

Of course, John Calvin died in 1564 so he was not an astronaut. The artificial image combines real data—portraits of the real John Calvin from the sixteenth century and later, and images of real astronauts from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The image above bears a reasonable resemblance to Calvin and includes the black skullcap he often wore. If you told a children’s Sunday school class that this was a real portrait of John Calvin the astronaut, they might believe you were telling the truth and that the image was an accurate portrayal of a real person.

The problem with the text-based, AI-generated image of John “Buzz” Calvin of the fictional Apollo 18 mission is that the text prompt is not true, even though the face resembles Calvin’s, and his spacesuit does look like the real spacesuits used 400 years after Calvin’s death. This amazing technology that generates pictures based simply on our words and thoughts (plus vast stores of internet data) seems new. But is it?

The biblically-informed, serious-minded divines of the seventeenth-century Westminster Assembly seem to have almost anticipated the problems with images generated by a little text and a lot of fallen human imagination. These theologians took the whole Bible (including the second commandment) seriously and said in the answer to Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) question 109:

The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it.

The divines warned against images generated by artificial intelligence. (Remember, one of the meanings of artificial is “not real.”) Manmade images of any of the three persons of the Trinity (including the Son in his real human body) are not real, not accurate, not true. This is so, not merely because we have no images of Jesus made during his time on earth, but also because Jesus was at no time less than divine. Even when he was veiled in flesh, he was “a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible” (WLC 7). We sing that Jesus in his divine essence is “immortal, invisible” (1 Tim 1:17), and yet we may act as though he can be depicted on a canvas or a screen. That his true divine nature and glory were veiled in flesh is good news, since no sinful human (not glorified) can see God and live. But because Jesus was both God and man, no image created by the imagination, paintbrush, or supercomputer of man can depict him truly.

With sufficient data, AI might make a seemingly accurate representation of Jesus in his human flesh, but the Bible is very short on descriptive data about our Lord. What do we know? He was a man who lived to middle age—that is about all the New Testament tells us. His appearance seems to have been extremely ordinary, which may have been evidenced by the difficulty his followers had in recognizing him post-resurrection. Any outstanding physical characteristics he had (if there were any) were not committed to the inspired Scriptures. The biblical witnesses and gospel writers chose (or were made) to reveal nothing about how he looked. Their descriptions of him and even of his death and suffering are, quite ironically, “bloodless.” A further irony is that certain Old Testament prophetic passages tell us more about his appearance than any part of the New Testament, but even these are of no help: he may have had a beard (Isa 50:6), and he was unremarkable, having “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53:2).

Since artificial intelligence is a form of computer science, we might do well to remember the geeky dictum, GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Bad or (as is the case with visual data for Jesus’ true human appearance) scant data in cannot lead to good or fulsome data coming out. All our attempts to depict him are in vain. More importantly, regardless of our images’ accuracy, such images of any of the three persons of the Trinity are forbidden. Making such images is not just a bad idea; doing so is simply bad—against God’s holy law.

Consider the lesser-known Second Helvetic Confession, which may be the strongest Reformed statement against images of the Godhead:

Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. He denied that he had come “to abolish the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17). But images are forbidden by the law and the prophets” (Deut 4:15; Isa 44:9). He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (2 Cor 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). But “what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor 6:16).

More images (good, bad, and indifferent) are produced in our day than at any point in history, and (probably because of this volume) they have never been cheaper in any sense of the word. Though technology can make very accurate images, images have never been less trustworthy. The safest course of action for God’s people in 2023—as in every previous century—is to eschew all uninspired, uncommanded, and uncertain images of any person of the Godhead in favor of the reading, hearing, teaching,1 and preaching of the Word of God and the enjoyment of the two ordained visual expressions of Christ—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—in their biblical simplicity. This is the only faithful, authentic, and intelligent course for the church, which ought always be concerned with worshipping God in spirit and in truth.

NOTE

  1. Some, of course, maintain that supposed images of Jesus can have pedagogical value, but what other types of education have considered information known to be false as helpful for communicating truth? Furthermore, there is no pedagogical switch that can be thrown in religious education that causes learners, simply because they are warned, not to veer into worship when viewing alleged images of Jesus, especially if he is rightly set forth as the only Savior of sinners.

©Brad Isbell. All Rights Reserved.


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9 comments

  1. “What other types of education have considered information known to be false as helpful for communicating truth?”, you ask. Well, education that pushes the lies of trans ideology into the minds of children is a primary example.

  2. This tendency to overreach scripture with humanly contrived images is true of other characters as well. Take Samson, for example. He is often depicted as a man built like Hulk Hogan or Arnold Schwarzeneger as a testimony of his amazing strength. But as I read and re-read those passages from Judges I’m convinced that he looked like any other ordinary man whose strength came directly from God, which is probably why the Philistines were so confused about the source of that strength.

  3. I would argue that the Passion of the Christ is an example of images that allow one to visualize in a relatively accurate and powerful way what our Savior went through for us. The bearing of our sins in order to receive the wrath of God on our behalf, of course, could not be depicted visually. And yet, the appearance of Satan in the garden as Jesus prayed and in the crowd as he carried the cross gave a sense of the spiritual dimension of the crucifixion. When I viewed the movie, I did not worship the image on the screen, but it was like a love letter that captured my heart in a way that the words on a page had not, causing me to be willing for God to change me in a way I had not been up until that point. The scene of the Stone Table in the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe is another example of this same phenomenon. Viewing Aslan surrounded by the demonic horde and the White Witch at the moment of his death, after seeing the negotiation for Edmund’s soul earlier that day, very powerfully showed the love for the single sinner who had drunk the hot chocolate and eaten the Turkish Delight and deserved no such compassion. The 2nd Commandment is about the heart condition that worships and trusts anything that is not Divine. If that were not the case, we would be against all art of any kind that pictures any person or animal as Islam prohibits. It is important not to go beyond what the Bible actually teaches. The Pharisees themselves were guilty of doing this, and Jesus called them out for it (their perception of the Sabbath, their tithing the tiniest thing while neglecting the weightier issues. We, as humans, can have a tendency to strive to be law keepers, focusing on the letter rather than the spirit of the Law, and actually lose sight of the freedom we have in Christ. It think this is an area that could tempt the law keeper in us all if we allow it.

    • Jeff,

      “Relatively accurate”? On what basis do you say that? Was Jesus tall or short? Was he heavy or thin? Was he dark or light skinned?

      We don’t know the answers to any of those questions.

      Thus, every imagination of Jesus is just that: imagination.

      Where has God commissioned or commanded a representation of himself?

      How is it possible to depict his humanity without becoming Nestorian?

      The 2nd commandment is about the heart condition but we may not excuse violations on the basis of good intentions.

      The Pharisees abused the law by adding their own commandments to it and then excusing themselves from God’s actual law.

      The law itself is quite clear: we may make no representations of God. Jesus is God. Ergo, we may not represent him.

      Why aren’t the two divinely commanded representations, Baptism and the Holy Supper enough?

      Check out the HB resource page on images.

  4. I wish more than ever that I had never seen a Jesus portrayed as a blue eyed, blond haired man clothed in a perfectly white robe floating around Jerusalem.
    I’m 70 and still freeing my mind from it. These things seem so innocent in children’s Sunday school, but are actually not helpful at all. Cartoon books of Jesus and His disciples make Jesus less than who He is.
    I heard one pastor say we need to stop thinking of a blond haired Jesus with soft hands.

  5. I am fully convinced of the truth of your statements, sir. How to respond to the counter-charge that refusal to treat of the real bodily incarnation of our Lord is docetic?

    • Ken,

      1. Question the premise, which assumes that a picture is treating of the bodily incarnation. It assumes what it has to prove.

      2. The holy sacraments are divinely instituted pictures, if you will, of Christ. No painting or icon is divinely instituted.

      3. The same people who gave us the creeds affirming Christ’s true humanity also denied images. Ergo, it doesn’t follow that being an iconoclast denies his true humanity (or else the pre-eighth century fathers all denied his humanity).

  6. In my mind the granddaddy of all images is Salvador Dali’s painting of the Last Supper, the disciples and Jesus all with modern haircuts, etc. Then he followed that one with a typical Dali exposition of the entire scene more or less breaking apart into some kind of molecular particles.

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